Inequality linked to differences in kids’ brain connections

Growing up in a socioeconomically disadvantaged household may have lasting effects on children’s brain development, a large new study suggests.

Compared with children from more-advantaged homes and neighborhoods, children from families with fewer resources have different patterns of connections between their brain’s many regions and networks by the time they’re in upper grades of elementary school, the research finds.

One socioeconomic factor stood out in the study as more important to brain development than others: the number of years of education a child’s parents have, according to the new study led by a pair of University of Michigan neuroscientists and published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience.

But as the researchers dug deeper, they discovered the number of diplomas or degrees parents earned is not the only thing that can makes the difference for brain connectivity. They also found a role for parenting activities, like reading with children, talking with them about ideas, taking them to museums, or other cognitively enriching activities.

The new study draws on brain scans and behavioral data from more than 5,800 tween children from diverse backgrounds nationwide. It’s the largest-ever look at how socioeconomic factors affect children’s “functional connectomes” — the term for maps of interconnectivity across hundreds of brain regions.

It’s also potentially relevant to public policy. One in seven American children lives in poverty using the standard definition, and half qualify for free or reduced school lunch.

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